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If there is one apparent truism of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, it is that foreign policy doesn't matter. It's the economy, stupid. No one is interested in drones, Afghanistan, China, or the future of NATO -- or so say the political pundits. While such arguments are almost certainly overstated, Republican candidate Mitt Romney's campaign appears to buy into this construct. After all, how else can one explain the candidate's complete lack of seriousness on foreign policy in this campaign?
Beginning with July 24's speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) annual convention and continuing with his three-country trip to Britain, Israel, and Poland, the past week was supposed to showcase Romney's foreign-policy bona fides. Instead it has provided evidence that Romney may not quite be ready for foreign-policy prime time.
Indeed, Romney's first foray on the global stage has been an exercise in gaffe-making, needless provocation, and decidedly undiplomatic behavior. Honestly, who screws up a trip to Britain, America's perhaps most consistent and loyal ally? Whether it's insulting London's preparation for the Olympics, traveling to Israel and telling the Palestinian people they lack the cultural attributes to match the economic vitality of their occupier, or offering a veritable green light for unilateral Israeli attack against Iran, Romney's trips has raised far more doubts than they've squelched.
For those who have followed Romney's foreign-policy pronouncements to date, these doubts are not really new. Case in point: Romney's "big foreign-policy speech" last week before the VFW annual convention -- a speech that like so much of what the candidate has said on foreign policy was brimming with platitudes, threat-mongering, and a healthy dose of mistruths, but lacking in an actual description of what a Romney foreign policy might look like.
Indeed, Romney's speech was dominated by simply made-up attacks on President Barack Obama's foreign-policy stewardship and outlandish descriptions of America's supposed enemies.
His assertion that the "world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic" is simply not true. In fact, it's safer than it has ever been in terms of armed conflict. His claim that "the regime in Tehran is drawing closer to developing a nuclear weapon" is undercut by the view of the International Atomic Energy Agency and America's own intelligence agencies that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program. And of course his perennial charge that Obama has gone around the world apologizing for America is made out of whole cloth.
Yet the most outlandish, over-the-top mendacity was Romney's accusation that Obama is responsible for "an arbitrary, across-the-board budget reduction that would saddle the military with a trillion dollars in cuts." Romney is referring to the sequestration cuts that are scheduled to go into effect in January 2013. What is missing from this lacerating rhetorical assault is that Republicans solely instigated the $1.1 trillion in defense cuts during last summer's debt-limit deal. The reductions (pending the work of the so-called supercommittee) were part of the price demanded for agreeing to raise the country's debt limit. Of course, Obama signed off on the deal, but to place all the responsibility on the president's shoulders and state that he "has chosen this moment for wholesale reductions in the nation's military capacity" is high-grade chutzpah.
Then again, for a campaign that tends to treat truth as though it's something of a moving target, this is perhaps not all that surprising.
What is surprising, however, about Romney's foreign-policy performance is not simply the belligerence directed against Obama -- but in fact his belligerence to the rest of the world. Indeed, it's difficult to remember a presidential candidate so prone to publicly attacking other countries. For example, while U.S.-relations with Russia remain rocky (but certainly better than they were four years ago) Romney significantly -- and needlessly -- upped the ante by calling Moscow, America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." Bashing China is hardly unheard of on the campaign trail, but Romney has been brazen in his criticisms, calling Beijing a "currency manipulator," a "cheater," and "ruthless" in its domestic policies, language hardly appropriate for a candidate who six months from now might have to sit down and work with the Chinese leadership.